Mexico is celebrated worldwide for its cuisine. In fact, it is one of few national cuisines to gain the status of UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage. Yet “Mexican food” is often misunderstood. Its signature dishes aren’t the burritos and tacos that are exported as familiar “Tex Mex,” and its flavor profiles are deeper than the usual notes of chili powder, cilantro, and lime.
Mexican cuisine gets very creative with herbs and spices, using unexpected flavor sources and adding seemingly sweet spices to savory dishes. How well do you know Mexican cuisine? See if your tongue would recognize these unusual herbs and spices likely to appear in a truly authentic Mexican meal.
While we may think of cinnamon as a spice for breakfast pastries and desserts, this ground bark spice is used heavily in Mexican cooking for both sweet and savory dishes. One classic use of cinnamon is in chocolate. Mexicans like their chocolate in a cup, thick and often bitter, seasoned with cinnamon and picante (hot) spices, and with a side of churros.
Cinnamon is taken so seriously in Mexican kitchens that they use a form called Ceylon, which is considered to be a more true cinnamon than the Cassia found in U.S. stores and kitchens.
The flavor of anise—the seed of a flowering plant—is most associated with licorice. Anise is the flavor force behind Mexico’s sweet bizcochito cookies. However, the well-trained Mexican palate can also pick up notes of anise in savory sauces and marinades.
Have you ever tasted a flower? If you’ve sipped an Agua de Jamaica in Mexico, then the answer is yes. To concoct this brilliantly earthy and not-too-sweet beverage, Mexican cooks brew the deep magenta pedals of the hibiscus flower. The result is a tart, almost cranberry-like infusion. Sugar is added to taste and the drink is served cold, as one of the classic aguas frescas on Mexican menus.
Chocolate is made of cocoa, but that’s just the beginning of what can be done with the amazing cocoa bean. Cocoa is said to have originated in Mexico, where the ancient Aztecs first cultivated it and experimented with its use. Once the bean is roasted and ground, it is added to an impressive amount of savory Mexican dishes, adding a warm, rich dimension to the flavor profile.
Some of the most traditional Mexican moles use cocoa as a savory spice. A good mole cook will draw from a specific region in Mexico, while adding a few personal touches at the same time. This makes each batch of mole a culinary adventure that often involves dozens of ingredients! Cocoa is common to many of them, especially the famous mole poblano.
The Mexican tamale is often wrapped in a banana leaf. More than just the neat packaging of tasty tamales, banana leaves also infuse the corn paste inside with extra flavor. In addition to concentrating the flavors of the tamales boiled inside them, banana leaves also add an extra layer of aroma. This is why the leaves are also used in Mexican kitchens to wrap all sorts of meat, fish and poultry dishes while cooking.